UK universities have emerged as world leaders on fossil fuel divestment as the total value of funds being withdrawn by higher education institutions globally tips £80 billion.
Nine UK providers today announce that they will never invest in the fossil fuel industry, bringing to 54 the total number of campuses in the country that have taken action to exclude fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.
A report by the student campaigning network People and Planet and the National Union of Students for Times Higher Education says that this means that a third of UK universities have made a divestment pledge of some kind, with 22.5 per cent pledging to end all fossil fuel investments and a further 13.3 per cent making a partial commitment. More than half of Russell Group institutions, which typically have larger endowments, have made divestment commitments, and the total value of endowment wealth covered by commitments across the sector overall stands at £10.7 billion.
UK institutions account for nearly half the 113 universities worldwide that have made pledges. Although the value of divestments pledged in the US is much higher – £65.5 billion, with wealthy institutions such as Yale and Stanford universities being significant factors in this figure – the proportion of institutions involved is much smaller. In the US, just 0.64 per cent of institutions have pledged to fully divest, and 0.31 per cent have agreed to partially divest, the report says.
People and Planet highlights a 2016 study by University of Oxford researchers which suggested that no new CO2 emitting electricity infrastructure can be built after 2017, if warming is to stay within a 2°C target, unless other electricity infrastructure is retired early or retrofitted with carbon capture technologies.
Andrew Taylor, co-director of campaigns and communication at People and Planet, said that while student campaign groups at individual universities have been a key factor in the UK, “a lot of other institutions that may not have had active campaigns are looking at it now and saying ‘it’s now something we should be doing’, from a senior management level”.
“Compared with the US, the fundamental debate over whether climate change is happening or not is not something that’s still happening to the same extent in the UK…In the US, it’s definitely more polarised…it’s harder to win over there on divestment,” he said.
The global divestment campaign scored its first victory with the decision of Hampshire College in Massachusetts to pull out of fossil fuels in 2011, and institutions in 76 countries have now made similar pledges. In 2014, the University of Glasgow became the first university in Europe to commit to divest its endowment from fossil fuels.
Fourteen per cent of Australian universities have made full or partial divestment pledges, covering £3.47 billion of investments, the report says. In New Zealand, a quarter of institutions have made pledges covering £548 million of investments. But in Canada only 1 per cent of institutions have joined the campaign, accounting for just £92 million.
Other systems leading the way include the Republic of Ireland, where 28.6 per cent of institutions have pledged full divestment, covering £165 million, and Sweden, where 15.1 per cent of providers have made full or partial pledges, accounting for £383 million.
In the UK, the nine new commitments are from Canterbury Christ Church University, the University of Chester, the University for the Creative Arts, the University of Cumbria, Newman University, Wrexham Glyndwr University, York St John University, Writtle University College and the University of Winchester. Six of the institutions are from the Cathedrals Group of universities with Church foundations.
Those nine institutions have signed a new Fossil Fuel Declaration, composed jointly by People and Planet and NUS, which commits the universities to never investing in fossil fuels and states they have a duty to safeguarding all students, present and future, including those from the Global South who face the worst impacts of climate change.
Although these institutions do not have endowments, their decisions are significant nonetheless, Mr Taylor said, because it is important to have divestment commitments in place before universities “start making those financial decisions”.
Robbie Young, NUS vice-president for society and citizenship, said that the fact that a third of UK universities have committed to divestment in some form “is a direct result of the collective power of students”.
The report comes amid a long-running and significant battle over fossil fuel divestment at the University of Cambridge, where university staff on the governing Regent House have passed a motion to divest the institution’s endowment (worth about £2.6 billion) from fossil fuels. Although the university has said that it will not invest in coal and tar sands, campaigners want a more far-reaching pledge. The university’s council has so far resisted, but has set up a new working group to examine the divestment issue.
Alice Guillaume, a member of Cambridge University Zero Carbon Society and one of two student representatives on the working group, said that through petitions and the Regent’s House motion “students and staff have sent a clear message to the university: we cannot see the moral or financial case for investing in an industry whose business plan and share price is based on burning five time more coal, gas and oil than the scientists and UN agree is safe to burn”.
Debating the most recent Regent House motion last November, Simon Redfern, professor of mineral physics and head of Cambridge’s department of earth sciences, expressed alarm about climate change. But he said that “the fossil fuel industry hosts the very organisations currently at the forefront of research, together with us, into mitigating carbon emissions through endeavours such as carbon capture and storage, a pathway to negative emissions”. He argued that the way to achieve positive outcomes was “through cooperation and engagement, not disinvestment and disengagement”.